White Dust

by Divine Inyang Titus

Divine Inyang Titus is the winner of the STCW Future Folklore Climate Fiction Contest, 2021 and author of the chapbook A Beautiful Place To Be Born. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Brittle Paper, The Parliament Literary Journal, The Hearth Mag, The Shallow Tales Review, and elsewhere.

It was a downpour so wild the drains were overflowing, and the trees on the far side of Eneh, hovering above remote farmlands and shadowed fortresses, were contorting into giant, exorbitant shapes. I struggled to make my way through the mess of refuse spilled onto the streets like vomit. Above my splayed umbrella drummed the tattoo of a zillion droplets. Eneh never looked so deserted at this time of the evening, with all the lights out, no eager voices advertising cocoa-bread or mangoes, no honking dumper trucks filled to brim with offal, no tricycles swerving fervently.

I looked up to the sky and found a suggestion of greyness, so intermingled with the surrounding that it manifested as a domelike continuity. The darkness seemed to grow over everything, seep into everything. This was appropriate, I thought. A return to the past should not be veneered by a light, not when all that waited here for me were old wounds, obfuscated scars. I walked into them, wary, unwilling, as my heart fell with the waters.


Eneh welcomed me with a woman, right after I’d stepped down from the okada and the coarse-voiced rider whose face I didn’t bother to make out in the dark had told me “Oga go lodge for hotel o, this erosion dey carry people o.” The woman was old, but not so old that she was bent and folded over a stake. She walked briskly, cutting right through the flooded streets as though she had urgent business to attend to and the deluge was only a secondary irk. I hurried to her and put my umbrella up.

“Momo, the rain is plenty. Won’t you rest a bit?” I said.

She stopped and searched my face with narrow eyes. From the little I could make out, she was probably in her late fifties or early sixties, grey-haired with receding hairline, wrinkled, but curiously beautiful.

“Why do you look so much like Ishin?” she asked.

I smiled, feeling a little shy. “Because I’m his son?” A flash of lightning came soundlessly and red, and drew dendritic patterns all over the southern sky.

“Aah!” she exclaimed. “Come. My place is not far from here. Let’s settle there and wait for the rain to pass.”


We entered her home, a small, backyard place, with a stenchy gutter running in front, and I knew I’d made a terrible mistake. Everything about the place rang familiar, even in the dark. The voices I heard seemed to know me, and I seemed to know them. As I took my seat on one of the sofas in the living room, I could feel watchful eyes everywhere. Then conversation, breaking out in hushed and quick whispers, but I picked out a few things. First, they knew me by name, my native name, Vako, and somehow they were related to me—through my father. Two lonely candles hurled dreary orange lights. I stared into the fire. It flickered aloof and yellow, and then from somewhere deep in the entrails of the flame, a memory:

“Papa Vako! Your children are still inside the house!”

A wiry old man pushed past my fumbling father and bounded into my room. He found me holed up in the cupboard, dazed, lungs filled with smoke, and hoisted me onto his massive shoulders. The feeling of flames in my chest, a heat so indefinite I knew it would destroy me, and the sound of my mother’s frantic voice calling to Aya a million times. It was Aya who taught me to hide in cupboards. When they found her passed out on the kitchen floor, severely burnt, I cried because I thought she’d have been protected from the fire if we’d had a cupboard in our kitchen.

My mother kept screaming: “Papa Vako!! Papa Vako!! See what you’ve done to my children!! See what you’ve done to my children oooh!!”

My father only stood in a corner, sober for the first time in ages, and wept. The same way he stood after they put Aya in the ground and threw an eternity of dust over her eyes. He never mustered the courage to utter an apology. You could see it stretching his eyes wild, but he could never utter it. Not that my mother waited for any. By dawn, I was already on her lap in a maladroit slow-and-steady bus, our belongings stuffed in Ghana-must-go bags, crawling to Eko.


My phone rang and I recovered myself from the flames. It was Yuli, my girlfriend. Was it Eneh—this nearness to ashen love—that made me feel unable to handle the sound of a love that burned so alive? I watched the phone ring out, exhaling deeply as the screen faded into black. I needed to leave this candled place.

“Vako, my boy,” the woman said as she emerged through a door. “O how you’ve grown. You don’t even remember me.”

I aimed my coy smile at the ground. “Momo, forgive me. I—”

“How old were you when you left Eneh? 14?”

“11.”

“And you’ve been in Eko ever since?”

I nodded.

“You people like your cities big and insane.” She laughed. I heard a ray of bitterness splay out of the sound, just before she asked if I’d been speaking to my father. I replied that I hadn’t and she laughed again; I heard the bitterness again. Her daughter, a dark, slim-figured, round-headed lady, perhaps in her mid-twenties, moseyed into the room and offered me a cup of hot tea.

“Vako, have you met Esa? She was only a little girl when you left Eneh.”

I accepted the teacup and smiled my best smile. She didn’t smile back, didn’t even look at me. As she handed me the cup, her lips emitted a strange sound. I watched her posterior sway lazily away, feeling offended and lustful and uncomprehending. I bid them farewell and left, into an attenuated rainfall and a vista of black nothings.


Home.

What right had this place to call itself my home? This wretched place, wrought with memory. Everything good and everything evil happened here. And after here, the remnants did not want to forget. The building was a squat off-white shadow of its former self, with flaking paint and hassled eaves and hedges all withered and forgotten. Nothing like the houses where I lived in Eko with my mother after we left her sister’s little apartment at the tail end of Wobble Street.

What right had this place to call itself my home? This wretched place, wrought with memory. Everything good and everything evil happened here.

The first one had a veranda that could have contained two bungalows, lofty hedges blooming lemon and chartreuse, and a garage filled with automobiles I didn’t even know existed. We lived in the boys’ quarters, my mother and I. The homeowner, Mr. Bimbo, alias Baba Star, had been my mother’s classmate back in elementary school and retained a fondness for her. He owned two pit bulls and a Rottweiler, a host of obsequious staff, and too many phones. He liked to drive around in a yellow Hum-Vee with his head wrapped in a white turban, throwing around a Hausa accent that sounded cloyingly fake. I called him ‘Uncle’ and he called me ‘Bomboy’ whenever he came to see my mother. Usually, my mother would ask me to go play with the gardener’s son—and I always left with a grudge.

Once, I walked back to our quarter angrily after a fight with the gardener’s son. At the door, I heard a quiet a little too unfitting for old friends. I pushed open the door without knocking. My mother was on all fours, her back arched over the bedsheet, with Baba Star’s huge fingers working tirelessly in and out her anus. I froze, for too many seconds, before Baba Star yelled: “My friend, get out of here!”

My mother’s explanation had been simple. Mr. Bimbo was going to marry her and they were trying to make me a younger brother—and that I must never interrupt her private moments again. But a month later, as rampage began to move through the city, and politician after politician dropped in bizarre deaths, we moved to another apartment in the outskirts of Eko. It was slightly better furnished and owned by a young man in his thirties who drove a magenta Camry. What was his name again? Vestro? Vesper? Yes, Vesper, a dandy, little fellow, clearly younger than my mother, with a gentle lisp in his speech. My mother told me once that she really liked him, and that he was going to be my new father. But one day, as they argued in her room, he backhanded her and she fell onto her dressing table and it broke. We left the next morning to Alhaji Jina’s quarters, then to one pastor who liked to touch my mother’s breasts while we prayed in the morning.


In a sense, I’d never had a home. None quite like the one of my childhood, in all its glow and glory, shadow and grief. It was here Aya had taught me to play ten-ten and rock-paper-scissors, behind the house where the butterflies converged about the morning lilies; here that we attempted to count the stars. It was here I and Aya learned to shoot catapults at the flocks of birds that roamed the skies at noon—though I don’t quite remember if we ever had any success. Once, in a time beyond definite memory, even father had reveled in magic with us; had joined us to make paper jets and fly them against turquoise skies, to mold battleships with red clay and broomsticks, and fashion arrows out of skewed neem saplings and lengths of plastic tapings. Sometimes, I think I’ve made this memory up entirely by myself.


I knocked on the door and waited for things I knew I would not understand.

The door opened and a woman’s face peeked out the side of a curtain. The night afforded me no visions, no colours. I told her who I was and she sighed deeply and let me in.

“I’m his nurse,” she told me when I asked who she was.

“Oh.” Questions bubbled on my lips but I held them at bay. I needed to see him first.

She showed me into his room and lit a couple of candles. I saw him on the bed, gilded in the flames, and I froze in my step, took deep lungfuls of air. He wasn’t asleep. His fingers twitched and quivered, and he mumbled indistinctly.

“Father?” I called.

A complete stillness ensued. It was quiet in the room, quiet in the heavens, quiet in my soul. His face was turning, his eyes were rising to me, and I trembled at what I might find there. What death or what life, what malice or what conciliation.

“Friday?” my father finally said, after taking a long look at me.

“Daddy, it’s me.”

“Oh, Dukena!”

“What?” I muttered, shocked. My father remembered all these people that were not me, or even real. Bitter juiced wriggled up my throat.

“Ovayoza! Haha! Come and sit down by my side. Come! Come! I’ll tell my wife to bring some green tea. She’ll warm it for you. She’s handy, that one. She bore my children, all seven of them. Come! Sit!”

Seven children? I thought as I shuffled over, confused, simmering, depleted.


My mother told me my father began abusing the white dust when he became friends with The Adder and his crew of hyper-successful businessmen. My father had wanted to become like them, drive in posh cars and wear expensive suits. Plus, to get his inchoate marketing firm up and running, he needed their money and partnership. I don’t remember things ever being too bad with us, but my father wanted more. For all of us. I’d heard him say so to my mother one morning while he dressed up for work. I stood by the door and listened.

“What happens when you get hooked?”

“I won’t get hooked. I just need to do it a little bit. You know, just to convince them.”

“Pa Vako. This is serious business. It could affect the children. It could—”

“I don’t want to hear any more of this! I’m not going to become a junkie or anything. I just need them to see me as one of their own!”

My mother sighed, again and again.

He placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m doing it for all of us, Ma Vako.”

“No. You’re doing it for yourself.”

Then I heard a slap. Then I ran away.

I told Aya and she said it meant daddy was going to go crazy. I don’t know why she didn’t seem scared of it. Well, she’d never been scared of much. The only one time I really saw fear in her eyes, the kind so deep it roots your feet to the ground and paralyzes you, was one time our father threatened her with a knife. He’d been high on the white dust, his eyes were glazed and bloodshot, and he rambled insensibly about things he thought she stole from him.

He raised the knife to her throat, scraped the edges along her nape, and cried, “Why would you do this to me, Aya? Why? Why?”

As she untangled herself from his grip and fled, he called after her: “Don’t run away from me. Don’t run away from daddy!”

Later that day, mother told us father’s company had gone bankrupt, and his millionaire friends had left him cold because they couldn’t be seen hanging around with a junkie.


One time, I had to go away. My mother, the men, the makeup, the lies, choked me to an anoxic point. After my spell as sexton for my mother’s pastor friend, I acquired a small room in Kawonsi, some 70 miles away from Eko, and moved in permanently. That was where I met my first girlfriend, Onnie, on a tricycle ride along the lower town. I liked the way she’d pronounced ‘perfume’ when she asked if I was interested in the oil-based ones. I took her number and met her at her shop along some highway, and we had our first kiss that very evening, our faces against the recess of the sun, our fingers intertwined.

After that she came every day to my meagre place, bringing food, water and herself. I helped myself to all three. I learned her tastes till they bored me, till orgasms lost their guile. But she never learned me. There was nothing to learn.

Kawonsi proved a hard place for a secondarian to find a job. Every establishment required a BSc minimum, even lowly elementary schools and cybercafés no one ever went to. I lived off Onnie and even moved into her apartment when I couldn’t keep up with my rent. I eventually found something to do in a battered motel at Quenzi lane as a second-class waiter in one of their bars.

One day, we argued. I’ve forgotten what about, perhaps my excessive weed use or how distant I’d grown, but I remember I was doing my best to listen to her but couldn’t. I could only feel my hands twitch, blood flow into my vessels, hate rising within me. I wanted to not hit her. I wanted to hit her.

“Say something!” she kept yelling.

I couldn’t. I had everything to say and nothing to say. One day, the demon in my hands would not listen, so I hit her; one slap, then two, then too many. I could have sworn that she’d leave me. But she didn’t. And until I met Karima, the things I became scared me. Every time I looked into Onnie’s eyes, I saw I’d become a metaphor for terror, and herself a metaphor for unconditional breaking. Until I met Karima, I did not know a person could leave.

Karima was the light-skinned goddess, whose mother she said was part Indian. I moved into her expensive-looking apartment in upper Kawonsi on a cold Harmattan morning, feeling a little like freedom. Karima was perhaps the most fun thing that ever happened to me in all of Kawonsi. She moiled jokes out of her belly and laughed effervescently to every one of them. What she lacked in booty, she made up for in a persona bold and aggravating. I could say I loved her, but I argue with myself if it wasn’t the highs I loved the most; if I didn’t feel more in love with the fourth or fifth wrap, with how we could languish in faraway places and dream.

“Life’s too short,” we often sang, “to live it on your feet! Let your wings go and fly! Sky! High!”

And Karima hit back whenever I hit. And so often we fought and so often we broke things.

One day, she brought home the white dust and three friends. That day I felt a happiness I knew was too real to ever be real. That day, I called my mother. I hadn’t taken her calls in over two years. She wept at the sound of my voice. I didn’t care for that. I wanted to tell her I’d used the white dust. The white dust that destroyed my father. I wanted to tell her, to tearfully unfurl in her depths and let her know that I carried my father within me. Too deep within me to purge. But I could not.


In the end, it was the memory of the night of the fire that drove me and Karima apart. Nothing could take it away, not even the white dust.

Well, especially not the white dust.

That day, my father had returned dazed again after another stint on the dust, his eyes bloodshot, and his hands clutching his stomach with feral intensity. “Something to eat,”he kept muttering. “Something to eat!” He blundered into the kitchen. “Aya!” he called, “Ma Vako! Food! Food!”

My mother had been at a friend’s. Aya was at the back of the house, doodling in her drawing book. No one knows what he did in that kitchen, only that he initiated flames that he could not contain and that they leaped out of the utensils and caught onto the drapes, and the plywood ceilings, and the timber roof trusses, and our world. We know the ceiling caved in just as Aya ran in to put out the fire. We know my father stood outside and watched, and that he was aware, and that he wasn’t aware.

I never did the white dust again, after that first time. I moved away from Karima and for some time, wandered through Kawonsi searching for nothings. There were days and days and days that held no meaning and no significance whatsoever. If ever I received money from a person, it was with fingers that held on to deep, nihilistic prophecies, so the act and the person were nothings. If ever I dropped into the outstretched bowl of a beggar, it was with the same fingers that held on to deep, nihilistic prophecies, so I, the act, and the person to whom I gave, were nothings.


I found Yuli the first time I plotted my death. It happened like this: I had a few thousand nairas or so in my pocket and I spent them all in one go at a small bar on a wild night. I bought and I bought things, things I could never need, and made the bar so alive. I screamed: “Drink’s on me!” and they cheered. Just before I reached my liquor limit, I waltzed out of the bar and headed for the highway, counting on the consequence of speed and Kawonsi’s reckless night drivers. A long Dangote trailer sped into the night from the distance, honking fiercely as if to say: “Better leave the road, else..!” And for the first time, ‘else’ was good.

But Yuli stopped me before I could run into the path of the trailer with a firm hand. I recognized the face as one I’d seen fleetingly at the bar. I yelled at her to let me go, but she didn’t flinch. I know I began to sob. I wasn’t even trying, I realized, to disconnect from her grip. Because, finally, something was holding me.

Never before, she said, had she seen beauty so devoid of life, like a dead frangipani petal.

Yuli tells me I have beautiful eyes. Is that what you saw that made you trail me to the proposed scene of my death? She says no. Never before, she said, had she seen beauty so devoid of life, like a dead frangipani petal.

Today when I ask if the flower is still dead, she kisses her answer to my lips. I like that. I like that Yuli is strong, really strong, and loving, and her face is oblong, but her lips are curved like a semicircle, and her r’s are uvular, and her laughter is golden. And truly, I think my demon may have been lulled to sleep by the sheer loveliness of that sound. But often I fear its awakening, its return, and Armageddon. My blood predicts it. I’ve felt it in my veins, in my motions. I am my father. I am all his weaknesses and mine. For how long can I run away from all the wrongs I can wreak?


The old woman I met the previous day had a Christian name. Maria. Like something pure and untainted. But I soon discovered there was a lot of resentment for me and my mother behind the name. She was my father’s kindred, a maternal aunt I think. Before my father fell asleep, the nurse had said to me: “You shouldn’t have come here. Now that you’re here, they have a devil to look at, to point fingers at. You shouldn’t have come back. Your mother is a smart woman.” And I did not know whether to curse or not.

She sat beside him, drew closer his feeble head, and daubed it with lukewarm water. My father obviously knew the feel of her hands for his face seemed to relax; his lids were not shut too tightly anymore. Then she fed tea into his mumbling mouth, not minding the drops that spewed onto the covers. It didn’t matter, she said. What mattered was that my father’s kindred accused us of abandoning him, of casting him away like a needless excuse, and I had arrived right on time for insults.

Old Maria arrived at the break of dawn, with Esa in tow. The nurse let her in as I sat unmoving by my father’s side. He’d talked himself to sleep the night before, and it had been a very long night. After the rains, had come the heat, and then the mosquitoes, singing irritation. The man had drawled on and on, about his families in lands I knew he’d only touched in his imagination.

“My five sons, f-five sons. And three daughters. We used to go watch the waltz at Lincoln Park. W-we drove the lengths of many autobahns. Wild, wild drives and the police could not stop us. Not that they didn’t try. Costa Rica was hard for my first son, I followed him there. They buried their drugs under his nose!” He sneezed then shrieked, “But, nothing can touch them. You see, Fetha, out there, we lived forever. We, we did not know how to die. The government people did all they could. From Masala all the way, all the way to Garki, and the cliffs of the Philippines, they roamed, and searched, and sent drones all about their bloody skies!” He wheezed and spat phlegm into a bucket. “My… my wife. Have you seen her yet? Have you seen my son?” His voice trickled into a hopeless silence. He’d fallen asleep. Later he awoke asking about Fiona Stone. Then if I’d seen his daughter in a briefcase downstairs.

The nurse had told me that if he lasted the night, he wouldn’t last the morning. I could feel the reaper lurking in every hour, in the very timbre of his breath.


I called Yuli.

She’d been very asleep.

“Huh?”

“I miss you,” I said.

“What?”

“I said I miss you.”

“When?”

“Just now.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

Perhaps if I could have tried to provide an answer to the question, it’d have gone like this: I’ve seen too many big things fade into small things, and now, more than ever before, my father’s ‘dying-ness’ reminds me of life, of ‘aliveness’, in ways I never used to know. Since you are what makes me feel most alive, I remember you, with startling clarity, in my every pulse.


Since you are what makes me feel most alive, I remember you, with startling clarity, in my every pulse.


I called my mother. I told her I was by my father’s dying bed, that I would not have him anymore when the sun broke the night. She said she knew. It was she who paid the homecare bill, and recruited other nurses when the contracted one grew tired. I cried, in that darkness, in that pain, as I finally told her. I did the white dust. I put it in me, once, like my father. And though I wasn’t hooked on it now, who could tell what atavistic bonds I shared with it?

My mother cried with me. “You are not your father” she kept saying. But, watching him die, I never saw something so closely mirror my emptiness, my own unique deaths.


“Your father will die today,” Old Maria said to me, all the warmth from the previous day evaporated, the bitterness pungent. “He will die alone and cheap. What are your plans to bury him?”

I didn’t have an answer. I hadn’t thought about funerals when I decided to come see my dying father. I just came, into Eneh, into the irrevocable. Maria and Esa left without another word.

Through the blinds, I saw the sun glow amber and proud and Eneh rising from her doom and gloom. The nurse brought me a cup of hot tea and I began to sip it slowly. My father had made it through the night, but now his hands were beginning to twitch violently, a mist of pain suffused through his face, and he looked, for a vacant moment, suspended in perpetual terror, and he mumbled names and names and names.

“He’s having another nightmare,” the nurse told me. “If he’s lucky, it will be his last.”

And it was. Nothing in his face suggested the eternal repose the hymns speak of. The suggestion of battle remained in his tensed muscles and in the apprehension of his chin. I wept then, for childhood, for Aya, for ashes, for dust. Never before had I known death could be so peaceless.

 


Divine Inyang Titus is the winner of the STCW Future Folklore Climate Fiction Contest, 2021 and author of the chapbook A Beautiful Place To Be Born. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Brittle Paper, The Parliament Literary Journal, The Hearth Mag, The Shallow Tales Review, and elsewhere.

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